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It has been said that we are living in an epidemic of social alienation and depression . Cognitive psychologists tell us that depression is often a result of how we interpret the world around us and the role we play in that world. Feelings of guilt, regret, and shame can fuel the fires of depression and further contribute to social withdrawal and alienation. Worry, that is, repetitive concern or rumination, then acts as a catalyst. It may be that a better understanding of what these feelings are and their relationship to one another will help you better control them and even free you from their burden.
If you read the self-help literature, you will find potentially confusing discussions of guilt, regret, and shame. It seems we have fallen prey to accepting Humpty Dumpty’s assertion “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.” To clarify the confusion surrounding guilt, regret, and shame, let’s simply rely on denotation to help us clarify and differentiate.
Guilt, simply said, is a belief in culpability or responsibility for some perceived offense or wrongdoing. There are largely four types of guilt:
A frequent corollary of guilt is regret. Frankly, regret can be a natural and healthy response to guilt. Regret involves accepting responsibility for some perceived offense or wrongdoing and being remorseful about it. It is often related to thoughts of contrition or repentance and it often leads to subsequent corrective actions and even preventive actions in the future. So regret is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it leads to shame.
In the early 1990s, Kenneth Smith and I, as well as others, began a research project that has now spanned 30 years. Our initial goal was to discover what factors in the workplace contributed most to psychological burnout and stress-related physical illness. Having collected and analyzed survey data over the course of decades, and using statistical methods such as factor analysis and structural equation modeling, we made a startling discovery.
We learned that worry (repetitive concern) was a significantly toxic psychological process that was the essence of what we called stress, and was a major determinant of burnout (personal exhaustion). Worry predicted psychological disorders and physical illness. If shame can take regret and turn it into a disaster, worry supercharges that psychological disaster and turns it into a catastrophe, often relentlessly.
In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon wrote in his Meditationes Sacrae that knowledge itself is power. It influences. It empowers. So how can information help release guilt, regret, shame, and worry?
Understand that guilt, regret, shame, and worry are not four independent stressors, but are often interrelated. They represent a virtual linear cascade that begins with guilt and, like a musical crescendo, builds in intensity and duration, culminating in shame and worry.
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